Who Are the 12 Tribes of Israel, and Why Are They Important?
Who Are the 12 Tribes of Israel?
The 12 tribes of Israel are the sons of Israel and their descendants. This was foretold by God to Abraham in Genesis. “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee and will multiply thee exceedingly” (Genesis 17:1-2). The result of this blessing is through Isaac. Isaac is the son that Abraham shares with Sarah in the Bible. His other son Ishmael also had 12 tribes, but what God promised to do was through Abraham and Sarah.
The 12 tribes or sons came from Jacob who the Lord renamed Israel in Genesis 32. If you read Genesis 49, you will see the 12 sons or what we now know as the 12 tribes. Jacob lay dying and called his sons to prophesy over them. He told Reuben, who was the firstborn, that he would not excel because he laid with Bilhah. She was one of his father’s concubines. This is him sleeping with his half-brothers’ Mom. See Genesis 35:22. Reuben would have been destined to receive an awesome blessing from his father had he not done this. He told sons Simeon and Levi that they were instruments of cruelty. He said that their descendants or tribes would be scattered. When their sister Dinah was raped, they tricked some men into being circumcised and later killed them. Read more in Genesis 34.
He declared that Judah ‘s brethren would praise him. He told him his hand would be in the neck of his enemies. Jacob said that Zebulun would dwell at the haven of the sea and be a haven for ships. “Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens” (Genesis 49:14). Dan would judge his people. A troop shall overcome Gad, but he would prevail in the end. Asher’s bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties. Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words (Genesis 49:23).
Israel said that Joseph would be a fruitful bough. Joseph received a double portion. His sons Manasseh and Ephraim also were blessed. He said that Benjamin would be raving as a wolf. He would devour his prey in the morning and divide the spoil at night.
Levi’s descendants were of the priesthood and did not receive tribal land of their own. The tribe of Benjamin gave Israel its first king, Saul. Joseph did not have a tribe named after him, but his sons did. They were Manasseh and Ephraim. When naming all the 12 tribes, many times you will see Joseph and Levi’s names excluded. You will see Manasseh and Ephraim included. All these tribes had land.
In the book of Joshua 13, God commanded Joshua to divide the land among the tribes. The Lord laid out the land to be possessed and told him to divide the land for an inheritance unto the nine tribes and half-tribe Manasseh. Verse 14 spells out that the tribe of Levi received no inheritance. “The sacrifices of Israel made by fire are their inheritance” (Joshua 13:14). In verse eight, the Lord says that the Reubenites and Gadites had already received their inheritance from Moses.
Why Did God Choose 12 Tribes?
In the Bible, God promises that Abraham’s seed would be blessed. “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Genesis 13:16). “And I will make my covenant between me and thee and will multiply thee exceedingly” (Genesis 17:2). “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:17-18).
Why did God choose 12 tribes? Some may say He chooses 12 tribes because that is how many sons Jacob had. Others would say it is a precursor to the 12 Apostles. Others may say that Jesus chose the 12 Apostles because it was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel and a reminder of God’s promise that the seed of Abraham would be blessed. You could delve further and look into the significance of the number 12. There are 12 months in a year. There are 12 minor prophets in the Old Testament. Throughout the Bible 12 appears with some significance.
“And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and 12 pillars, according to the 12 tribes of Israel” (Exodus 24:4). “And had a wall great and high, and had 12 gates, and at the gates 12 angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the 12 tribes of the children of Israel” (Revelation 21:12). God has a way of highlighting whatever He has favored. He does that in our lives. He has done it with the seed of Abraham through the 12 tribes of Israel. There are 12 tribes of the children of Ishmael who is also Abraham’s seed. But from Isaac came the 12 tribes of Israel through Jacob. This is where God promised to bless in a magnificent way.
Were Any of the Tribes "Lost"?
Here is how I understand the 10 lost tribes based on interpretation from biblical scholars. After Moses died, ten of the 12 tribes of Israel took possession of the Land of Canaan. Scripture provides insight as to how some of the tribes became scattered. “And they transgressed against the God of their fathers and went a whoring after the gods of the people of the land, whom God destroyed before them. “And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, unto this day” (1 Chronicles 5:25-26).
Also, look at Isaiah 11:11-12 for more insight. “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.”
From Scripture, we see that some of the tribes were scattered or assimilated into other kingdoms. Jewish scholars see this as a myth and provide an explanation as to where the tribes are located in history.
Why Are the 12 Tribes Important for Us to Know Today?
Knowledge of the 12 tribes is important because it helps us to understand current-day situations. We have greater insight as to why there is always unrest in the Middle East. We see why it is always in the United States' best interest to be a friend to Israel because God has always promised to protect them. He will bless those that bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel (Genesis 12:3). This promise is also for Christians. God will bless those who bless us and curse those who curse us. We understand better why the people of Israel have enemies because it was this way in the beginning. It is safe to assume that turmoil in the Middle East will continue until the return of Jesus Christ. It also helps us to understand why there may be a gathering of Israel.
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Dr. Sandra Hamer Smith is a Christian and wife to Sylvester Smith. She has one stepson, Greg. Smith lives and resides in Memphis, Tennessee. The University of Memphis alumnae has been in education for about 20 years after receiving the call to teach. Dr. Smith primarily teaches language arts. Prior to education, she worked in local and national television news for 13 years including positions as an overnight news anchor, reporter, and assignments editor at two local network affiliate stations. Smith was also a freelance correspondent for BET news. Dr. Smith has freelanced for the Tri-State Defender newspaper and Contempora magazine. She is the author of the self-published novel GLORY…THE HAIR. Smith is also a playwright and poet. The Tennessee native is a member of Temple of Deliverance COGIC, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc, Omicron Delta Kappa, The Golden Key International Honour Society, and Kappa Delta Pi.